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Automotive GPS Navigator Buyers Guide

Automotive GPS satellite navigators are a truly significant technological achievement. Their small size and speed of operation may give the impression that they are preforming a simple task but, this is in no way the case. The computational effort expended in determining the best route (especially with waypoints) is considerable. To illustrate how far these devices have progressed, consider the hardware required to complete the intensely complex task of triangulating GPS satellite signals for the current GPS satellite system precursor, the 1960′s Transit system for Polaris submarines. The computer hardware barely fitted through a submarine hatch, took 10 ft (3m) of electronics rack and required a special corps of Navigation Electronics Technicians to maintain and operate.1

Modern automotive GPS navigators provide us the luxury of a wide variety of features and functionalities to match the differing reasons we have for purchasing them. Following is an exploration of some of the common features and functionalities you will need to consider.

auto gps guide
Automotive GPS Navigator Buying Guide

GPS Receiver
Probably the most common GPS receiver included in automotive GPS navigators at the moment is the SiRF Star III chipset. The SiRF Star III family was a watershed development in GPS chip architecture for GPS manufacturers and provides excellent fix times, excellent sensitivity for gaining a lock even in weak GPS signal areas such as urban jungles or densely forested areas. SiRF now also provide SiRFDiRect technology which provides accurate positioning even when a GPS satellite lock cannot be maintained (eg. in a tunnel). SiRFDiRect works through the utilization of miniature heading and acceleration sensors to provide dead reckoning data.
Consumers will likely hear more of Texas Instruments new NaviLink 5.0 which has a very small 25 mm x 25 mm footprint and performance similar to a SiRF III.

Display Technology
GPS navigators commonly have a LCD TFT display. More expensive models may have a transflective display which can in bright conditions use the sun’s rays to boost backlighting making the display easier to see.

Screen Size
Auto GPS navigation devices commonly have a 3.5 or 4.3 inch screen with the 4.3 inch being in a widescreen aspect ratio. Larger screens are available with the Garmin Nuvi 700 models sharing a 4.8 inch display. Models with larger screens naturally cost more but, have some advantages worth considering including;

navigation interface is easier to see,
more buttons can be positioned on the touch screen reducing the number of control screens required and the complexity of the navigation interface and
buttons can be made larger for easier use.
It doesn’t matter how big the screen is if it is not bright enough. The screen needs to be readable on a sunny day and at those times you might be battling with glare from a rising or setting sun.

Sound
The volume of navigation directions needs to be sufficient to hear them clearly. It’s generally not a problem if the navigation instructions are routed through the car stereo. If not, ensure that the speaker(s) onboard the GPS are of sufficient wattage to overcome background noise while driving. Connection to the car stereo can be by a connection cable or an FM transmitter with the latter susceptible to interference in some situations.

Memory
Memory can be internal or via an SD card slot. More memory provides storage for more POI, maps, locations and waypoints. For multimedia capable devices the available memory format and size needs to be considered carefully. Input of new information or data can be via an SD card however, many find a USB for connection to a personal computer more flexible.

Navigation
A simple to use navigation interface and route plotting options that match your needs are essential to a making the right choice of a Auto GPS navigation device. Some of the more common route planning features available and example of automotive GPS navigators that have them are;

2D and 3D perspective map views

Search Facility for addresses and points of interest (POI)

Custom POI creation and uploading

Automatic Re-routing if a turn is missed Have a look at the Garmin StreetPilot c550

Addition of Waypoints

Avoidance of Specific Road Types eg. toll roads, highways or unpaved roads

Avoidance of Specific Maneuvers

Multi-destination Routing for planning multi-destination trips in advance

Auto Sorting of Multiple Destinations is ideal for a delivery route where want the most efficient route to visit multiple destinations. Consider the Garmin Nuvi 780

Advanced Lane Guidance generally provides an expanded/clearer view of intersections with lane choices and changes indicated with arrows or otherwise – consider the TomTom GO 730 for this feature. Navigon’s award winning 5100 has Lane Assistant and Reality View features. Magellan has a split screen functionality for zooming in of an upcoming turn.

Calculation of Multiple Routes for Different Priorities including; fastest time, shortest distance or particular road selection. See the Magellan Meaestro 3200, 3210, 3220 and 3250..

Text Entry Auto-complete works like the one on a mobile phone for speeding up text entry. Magellan Maestro 4200 models have the QuickSpell feature.

Send Addresses Directly from Google Maps or Mapquest including the GPS coordinates and address TomTom.

Customizable Safety Menu for setting warnings for speed, traffic, restricted zones, schools, and more – see the TomTom ONE 3rd Edition.

Car Locater – notes the position of your car when removed from windshield mount so you can find it again – have a look at the Garmin Nuvi 780.

Proximity Alert which notifies the driver of upcoming custom POIs. Nuvi 700 Series have this feature.

Maps
Commonly automotive GPS navigation devices are sold in different versions with maps matching the location in which they are retailed. It pays to check that you have the correct maps for local use as well as maps covering any travel/vacation destinations that are likely. Two major mapping data suppliers are NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas and which is used should not be a factor in determining which navigation device you purchase.

Map suppliers issue regular map updates (fee may be payable). It’s important to ensure that you have the latest update for all the same reasons that apply to printed road maps.

The detailed maps contain information on highways, interstates, business and residential roads with attributes such as turn restrictions, speed categories and other navigation features.

TomTom’s Map Share Technology brings the power of social networking to correct and improve available maps. Using Map Share users can; 1) modify street names and direction 2) add, remove or rename POIs and 3) (un)block streets on their own device. Users can share their map improvements and benefit from all other users improvements easily via TomTom’s free desktop application, TomTom HOME. It’s possible to filter those updates downloaded to only those verified by TomTom.

GPS Mounting
The most common mounting method for automotive GPS devices, not purchased as a pre-installed car feature, is a mount attached to the windscreen with a suction cup. The US states of California and Minnesota prohibit mounting anything on the windshield as do some other local laws in other countries. An alternative is a friction mount which has a flexible base with a grip mount on the bottom. The new EasyPort mount available with the TomTom GO 130 and GO 130S is a simple, secure mounting system which can be used on the dashboard or windscreen.

Points of Interest (POI)
POI are points of interest that drivers may wish to know about including attractions, retailers, service providers or parking. Details of each POI are stored in a database in the GPS memory and can be searched for, displayed on the navigational map or selected as a destination. If you are using your GPS device predominantly in your own city or local area then the POI database is likely to be something of significant value to your GPS use.

The number of POI provided with a device varies with the cost and memory size. It’s important that the POI database can be updated using an Internet download to a PC or other convenient method so that information does not become stale. New technology allowing live Internet search included with the Dash Express and the Magellan Maestro Elite 5340+GPRS provides the freshest POI information. There is a fee for Internet connection.

Purchasers of the Navigon 5100 receive free access to ZAGAT Survey which is a provider of consumer survey-based information on where to eat, drink, stay and play. Ratings and reviews are based on opinions gathered.

Traffic
Traffic is an extra paid service which delivers to suitably equipped GPS navigators information about traffic conditions including heavy traffic, delays, accidents, road works, black spots and speed cameras. In the U.S. Traffic Message Channel (TMC/FM), MSN Direct and XM NavTraffic are three prominent traffic service providers. Service features and quality varies between the providers and different locations. Areas of coverage need to be checked prior to purchasing a Traffic enabled automotive GPS navigator. The Internet connected Dash Express is the first model to collect live traffic data utilizing aggregated data from Dash Express users on the road.

Navigon includes a lifetime traffic updates subscription for the 5100 freeing the purchaser from additional fees. TomTom’s new IQ Routes technology is the use of actual average speeds on roads, instead of posted speed limits for calculating the best route.

GPS Location Based Services through MSN Direct
MSN Direct will bring location based services information direct to your GPS unit. It’s available in 100 of the largest cities across the United states (check service coverage).

MSN Direct location based services currently available include:

Local Traffic Reports provide traffic information on accidents, breakdowns and weather related traffic problems.
Weather Reports include current temperature, today’s high/low temperatures, three-day forecasts, humidity, and wind speeds.
Local Gas Prices local gas prices are uploaded to your GPS unit for you to navigate to the lowest price.
Local Movie Times allow you to find out what movies are playing, not just where.
An automotive GPS device with MSN Direct capability is the Garmin nuvi 680.

Bluetooth
Many states in the USA and other countries are passing laws requiring hands-free use of mobile phones in a car. Bluetooth is a wireless technology which enables consumer electronics devices to communicate over short distances. Purchasing a GPS unit with Bluetooth can be a way of gaining hands-free mobile phone use along with the navigation and perhaps multimedia capabilities of a GPS device. Hands-free mobile use improves safety by allowing the driver to keep their eyes on the road while answering a phone. A Bluetooth connected mobile phone can also be a conduit for real-time traffic data for the GPS navigation device. Magellan Maestro 4040, TomTom GO 920, TomTom GO 930, TomTom ONE XL, Garmin nuvi 360, Garmin nuvi 760 and Garmin nuvi 880 all are Bluetooth enabled.

Text-to-speech
GPS navigators equipped with text-to-speech are able to pronounce street names. Rather than giving simple navigation instructions like “turn left” the will announce something like “turn left onto Maple street”. It improves safety as it provides confirmation that you are on the correct route without having to glance at the navigation map on the screen.

Speech Recognition – GPS Device Voice Commands
Speech recognition is still very much a high end feature for car gps navigation devices however, worth considering as it does provide the ability to safely select a destination or modify a route while on the move. The flexibility of being able to issue voice commands and get verbal confirmation and navigation instructions means you can keep your eyes safely on the road. Speech recognition as included with the Garmin Nuvi 880 and 850 and other navigators involves using a vocabulary which matches button functions. Pioneer’s new AVIC-500BT is a hybrid automotive/personal GPS navigator which employs the more sophisticated VoiceBox Conversational Voice Search Platform which will interpret conversational navigation queries. Magellan Maestro 4250 and 3250 have Voice Command and Control. TomTom’s GO920 and 920T have Voice Prompted Address Entry.

Emergency Help Features
There is also the safety aspect of a GPS of being able to provide an exact location in the case you need to make an emergency call or the location of the nearest police station or hospital.

Multi-media Capabilities
More prevalent in higher-end GPS navigators are multi-media capabilities such as mp3, video and audio book playback and picture viewing. Some will allow the connection of portable entertainment devices such as mp3 players, DVD players and iPods.

Remote Control
If your GPS device has multimedia capabilities or you have a large cabin a Bluetooth remote control can be useful. TomTom’s premium GPS navigators, the GO 920 and GO 920T come with a remote.

Ease of Use
When investigating which brand and model of GPS navigator best suits your needs spend some time reading some of the customer reviews which can be found on online retailers like Amazon. They can help give you an idea how the non-expert manages with using the GPS device you may be considering. Many web sites also have product ratings as a comparison tool. Keep in mind when considering customer reviews that people are much more likely to complain than praise.

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